The 39 Steps is a farce adapted by an actor (cum comedian and playwright) from the 1915 adventure novel and the 1935 thriller film. While John Buchan's novel was a great success and read by soldiers in the First World War trenches, it is the Alfred Hitcock film that remains most acclaimed.
Patrick Barlow, in his kind of mad homage to Hitchcock, presents a play that would stretch the friendship of many – 4 actors play the entire 1935 film's cast – that's somewhere between 100 and 150 roles! Sounds like an improv session with Robin Williams on speed to me but actor Mike Smith (playing Richard Hannay) acknowledges the serious side of comedy. " In the words of W.C. Fields (or is that Steve Martin?) "comedy is serious business". So despite laughing a lot in rehearsal, there is a lot of focus, precision and routine involved – so most of the time we have our serious faces on," Smith explains. " We have the most fun watching each other come up with hilarious bits of business, most often completely improvised and unexpected. These are the most joyous, side-splitting moments."
The play is something akin to a wacky Monty Pythonesque piece and with that, states Smith, come many hurdles the most challenging of which would have to be the imagined world. "Many of the scenes have minimal to no set and props," Smith states. " Doors, windows, entire train carriages don't exist on stage, so it’s up to the actors to create that imagined world for themselves and, in turn, for the audience.
Alana Scanlan, our movement director, has assisted us in fine tuning our mime skills to make everything economical, believable and seemingly effortless."
Smith came to be involved with 39 Steps when he'd heard earlier in the year that HIT were touring the show and later heard the it was being directed by Terence O'Connell who Smith describes as 'the maestro himself.' Smith immediately thought this a combination made in heaven and promptly called his agent to investigate. To his delight, HIT were keen to see him for the role and the rest, as they say, is history.
Smith graduated from NIDA in 2005 and since graduating has appeared in The King and I (The Production Company), and as Tony in the Melbourne season of Billy Elliot, for which he was nominated for a Green Room Award. Smith admits that the acting bug has always been there, but his creative side was a little hampered while growing up playing sport in a town where there was very little opportunity to do drama classes or theatre. "I went with the flow of things and became passionate about my sport and music," Smith explains. " I was obsessed with film and idolised the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis. I would watch anything and everything – I was never limited to particular genres – I was always hungry for all forms of storytelling."
Smith considers himself to be a late-bloomer when it comes to theatre, but soon after seeing his first play he was hooked. "It wasn't long before I was eager to get on stage as opposed to sitting in the stalls," he says. " I met my great friend, director and now mentor, Rodney Delaney who cast me in a Canberra Repertory production of The Sum of Us. During our work together he encouraged me to consider working towards an acting career. At the time, auditions for NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) were approaching and Rodney suggested I try out. I figured I has nothing to lose and rolled up having no idea what to expect – probably a blessing in disguise – with no expectations I wasn't nervous at all, so didn't feel any pressure. I think this is why I was accepted into the school."
Smith admits to having had had some pretty demanding roles in the past, but, he says, playing Hannay certainly takes the cake. "It's a very physical role, with little rest between scenes – in fact, I spend pretty much all of the play on stage.," he says. " There is also something very special about our cast, crew and creative team which will undoubtedly make this experience one, I'm sure, I will never forget."
Smith acknowledges that while the play maintains some important, timeless themes, it’s also a good old fashioned two hour British romp. "With all the suspense and intrigue of a classic Hitchcock film, the play adds a more humourous flavour, suited for all ages," he says. " Set in pre World War II Britain the story follows the adventures of Richard Hannay, caught in a web of spies, murderers, police cronies, beautiful, mysterious women and some overtly eccentric Scottish locals. Its a laugh-a-minute (well…we hope so), non-stop rollercoaster ride we are sure will delight audiences. I think the best way to describe The 39 Steps, for those who are not familiar with it, is that it is a show for everyone – whether you're a regular theatre-goer or not."
Smith's hope for the audiences is that they find the show to be a great night out at the theatre. After all, The 39 Steps is recognised world-wide as one of the quintessential theatrical experiences. "It's regarded as an ode to theatre-craft at its best," enthuses Smith. " I think the audiences will be enthralled by the gripping story and delighted by the slick comedy. In particular the masterful comedic offerings of Anna Burgess, Michael Lindner and Sam Haft who, between them, play in excess of 100 characters. If anything, I hope the audiences walk away saying to each other 'how did four people do all of that!'"
The 39 Steps – 8pm Thur 26 September, 8pm Fri 27 September, 2pm & 8pm Sat 28 September
VENUE – Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins St, Melbourne VIC 3000
BOOKING – 03 9650 1500, Ticketek 132 849 www.ticketek.com.au
NATIONAL TOUR SCHEDULE: http://hitproductions.com.au/The39Steps2013.htm